If the LORD had not been my help,
my soul would... have lived in the land of silence. Psalm 94:17
Caught on camera after a trauma or disaster, people often look stunned, displaced, bereft and in shock. The value of ritual in this moment, and at each step of the healing and restoration process, is that it enacts the promise of God's healing presence, a promise that can be hard to hold onto during difficult circumstances.
Earlier this month, we reflected in this space on the deep listening that undergirds a timely and appropriate ritual after trauma or disaster. Was it human-caused or the cataclysms of nature? Will the restoration involve rebuilding of physical properties or much human suffering? Careful attention at this point of the preparation with the right people in the room will help to ensure that your rite, when prepared, will "speak" to the silence and horror of the desolation that people are actually experiencing. It will also allow you, in this next phase of your preparation, to match resources for the ritual required to meet your congregation's particular needs. You will have identified and prioritized those needs using the exercise in my last post "Using Ritual for Healing After Trauma and Disaster".
Take the needs you brainstormed and prioritized in that first exercise and list each of those needs at the top of a clean page, on paper or screen. Sometimes the urgency of the situation does not allow for this, but when possible this part of the ritual preparation is enriched by pondering and meditation time. If it can be overnight, all the better. If not, let the planners each take the sheets with the needs marked on them, or their screens, and go off to a quiet place for individual brainstorming.
Each participant will bring different strengths: one will know music; another will know the scriptures well (a concordance is a wonderful tool for finding appropriate passages, all the better in the hands of someone who already knows the pages of sacred text well); one will know poetry or other good writings; some will have strong contacts with community leaders who can speak to the identified needs in your congregation; others will bring gifts of dance, gathering an offering, or things you have not yet imagined. With the needs clearly in view, each participant will likely find their minds opened to their own strengths. Conversation following the time apart can be rich and full. If the debriefing session is facilitated well, a ritual will begin to form organically from the offerings and best thoughts of the participants. Ritual ideas will come from those who have imagined and seen the right "words" from God for your community's particular situation at this time.
I'd like to add one additional thought about music because it is so capable of carrying emotion, in such a variety of styles.
While leading a workshop on worship, I once met a pastor who had dealt with a terrible tragedy. His adolescent son's best friend had been handling a gun, unaware of the fact that it was loaded. The gun went off; the boy died. The pastor was a scout leader for both boys. The friend's family had no church home, so he agreed to do the funeral. He talked with me about how he had put the service together.
We talked about passages from scripture, about grief, and about his own loss. He was satisfied with how he had been able to bear witness to God, in the midst of tragedy, except when it came to the music. Of all the hymns he knew, he found none that could bear the weight of such anguish. They opted for instrumental music instead.
Instrumental music is a fitting choice, but there are songs -- words and music -- that could have worked. In Negro spirituals, for example, anguish and faith are often intertwined. (I am grateful to know that, and to have experienced their healing balm, from 35 years of living and 25 years of working in a predominately black community.) Music capable of bearing the weight of slavery and lynching can also bear the weight of contemporary trauma and disaster. The spirituals draw us to Jesus, who has stood in a place that resembles where we stand now, who can redeem even this moment. I can hear the strains of the spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," which ends with the line: "Glory Hallelujah!" Great sorrow is uttered, sometimes with great despair. But, in the next breath, so is faith and confidence in God's power. (If you do decide on music from the African American tradition, get someone on the keyboard who knows the musical tradition from the inside; it is conveyed in quite a different way when you do so.) If those who are suffering and grieving feel only despair or doubt, the ones who gather around them bear witness to God's presence for them. They can sing the faith for them until they are able to pick up the song again for themselves.
Biblical psalms of lament tend to be more familiar to people than spirituals, and many worship traditions set psalms to music. The lament psalms speak well in the midst of difficulty. Some even rail at God, or give voice to despair (e.g. Psalm 22:1). Such psalms might also be able to be spoken to background music that evokes an appropriate mood. If these examples fall outside your musical experience, and you feel stymied about how music might enhance your ritual, consider recruiting someone else who has the right kind of musical experience to help lead, taking into consideration the strengths and musical styles of your community.
These considerations about music leads me to a closing thought: while each of us works, most often within one faith tradition, disaster and trauma work often carry us outside of our single traditions into more communal work. That shows us our strength together! Let that strength be evident also in the ritual work that happens communally after a trauma or disaster.
The spirituals I referenced above come out of a Christian context. They likely would not work in an interfaith settings, though Psalms still might. Prior experience working in an interfaith community could help you when having conversations about ritual after a disaster, but the time after a disaster might also be the time that strong interfaith work begins. Be attentive to how each interfaith partner wants his or her faith to be expressed and envisions the whole. The process for developing rituals that truly speak to the needs of these people who are experiencing this disaster works best when you start by listening. A community will come together more wholly if all the faith traditions can come together on their own terms. So it will not be a Christian communion service that you could offer in most places -- too many would be excluded. Something broader and more complete for the whole community is the goal. Ideally, all of the community's religious leaders would stand together, bringing together their common resources for the puprose of healing and restoration. This would indeed be a great gift.
Follow this blog series
Part I - Using Ritual for Healing After Trauma and Disaster >
Part III - Considering the Use of Symbols and Symbolic Action in Rituals after a Disaster or Trauma >
* Learn more about congregational care practices on the ICTG Training page. Here, you will find dozens of resources, including the ICTG Congregational Assessment Guide, seminars on becoming trauma-informed, modules, forums, and more!